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At Sea in the Sixties

by James Rosen

All Falling Faiths: Reflections on the Promise and Failure of the 1960s, by J. Harvie Wilkinson III (Encounter, 208 pp., $23.99)

‘I have gambled in making this a personal tale,” observes J. Harvie Wilkinson III at the outset of his new book. Yet the exact wager placed in this literary gamble, its attendant odds and stakes, are never fully articulated in this heartfelt, often touching reflection by a renowned federal appellate-court judge raised in post-war Richmond, Va. Unfortunately, only by understanding the mechanics of Wilkinson’s gamble can we evaluate his argument — judge the judge, as it were.

The author does allow that because he is a “white, Protestant, southern, and distinctly privileged male,” he is “perhaps the very last person who should be writing personally about the Sixties.” Like a canny trial lawyer looking to get the Bad Stuff out there in the most flattering light before opposing counsel starts in on it, the judge comes clean: “I acknowledge the limitations of my own perspective and experience.”

Every memoir could stand to begin with such an admirable expression of disciplinary humility; but the mere proffering cannot inoculate the memoirist from scrutiny or judgment, most especially when he asserts that his personal experience was reflective of some broader American trend or dynamic — the promise and failure of a decade, say.

The truth is Wilkinson need not have gambled at all. Surveying the vast literature of the Sixties, popular and academic, no one would have regarded it as terribly risky to fuse personal recollections with a polemic arguing that the decade was, on balance, bad for America. The material for each component of such a book could be thoughtfully developed and artfully interwoven. That seems to have been beyond Wilkinson’s ambition, however, for there is precious little sociology here. Almost never is there resort, in these pages, to quantifiable metrics: external data that could persuade the reader that the bittersweet memories on offer are indeed representative of broader American phenomena.

The gamble here, then, was not that a “personal tale” is ill matched to historical argument; rather, Wilkinson gambled that he could get by with his historical argument almost solely on the basis of personal recollection. Wherever memoir yields to polemic, the author’s thesis is expressed in the slipperiest of terms, their elastic resistance to objective verification indispensable in the nebulous business of indicting a decade: “In the 1960s we lost much of the true meaning of education, much of our capacity for lasting personal commitments, much of our appreciation for the rule of law, and much of our sense of rootedness and home” (emphases added).

Isn’t quantification important here? Did the Sixties cost us 51 percent of our appreciation for the rule of law — wouldn’t that be the tipping point for declaring America, preponderantly, a lawless state? Would a dispassionate Martian, visiting America in whatever year by which the ravages of Wilkinson’s Sixties were complete, observe the place to be one where law, more often than not, is disrespected? Why is the judge, a keen evaluator of argument and the author of numerous previous polemics, satisfied to traffic in such imprecisions as “much of”? (The next page: “Much of the turmoil during the 1960s can be traced to . . .”)

Would federal statistics, to which the judge presumably enjoys access, bolster his argument that the Sixties were “one of the most lawless decades ever,” or otherwise strengthen for us the connection between Wilkinson’s Sixties and the Sixties? Did America’s per capita share of criminals, for example, rise after 1970? But wait: “The 1960s did not end in 1970,” we are reminded — so what period is under review, again?

Time and again, Wilkinson’s argument hinges on vagueness:

The mindset of eternal negativity is something the 1960s helped to load upon us. . . .

Of all the damage done by the 1960s, that to education may be the worst. . . .

Do I pin too much blame on the Sixties? It’s a fair question. . . .

I know only that loving became less in fashion in the Sixties. . . .

The climate of the Sixties seemed to push for an all-or-nothing choice: total allegiance or total contempt. . . .

In the end, chaos seemed to consume everyone and everything. [Emphases added.]

The regular reliance on tenuous connective tissue creates, for this author and this book, a special problem quite apart from the failure to prove their argument: The eschewal of objective truth is inimical to conservatism. Typically, it is the leftist radical who is content to convict on the basis of much of and seemed to; only in so determinedly relativistic a realm can a connection be drawn between, say, a mathematics laboratory in Madison, Wis., and the ravages of a war in Southeast Asia, such that the idea of planting a bomb inside said laboratory, killing an innocent researcher, can in turn appear swathed in rationality. “Causation,” the judge acknowledges halfway through All Falling Faiths, “is never simple.”

The inevitable Baby Boomer retort to any Generation Xer or Millennial who posits something contrary about the Sixties, of course, is: You weren’t there; you can’t possibly understand. But I do. By dint of longstanding obsession and painstaking historical enquiry, personal and professional, I am as intimately familiar with the Sixties as any person born in 1968 can be. Ask Brit Hume, or any other Boomer who knows me well. It actually freaks out some Boomers.

Accordingly, I understand the parallel lives of the Sixties: the difference between the relatively small number of Woodstock attendees and the great multitudes of ordinary Americans, for whom there existed — as surely as there did for ordinary Germans in the Third Reich — a benign daily existence, where people went to work and raised children, and where chaos may occasionally have seemed to consume everyone and everything, at least on the nightly news, but which feature of the times never produced, in quotidian life, some unrelievedly cyclonic effect.

I don’t necessarily believe Wilkinson wrong in his thesis — that attitudes toward love, law, education, and many other things clearly started changing in the Sixties (Tom Wolfe was correct when he asserted, in In Our Time, that the great decade of radical change was really the 1970s). I just think substantiating this thesis requires more effort than Wilkinson puts in.

Marketed differently, simply as memoir, All Falling Faiths is a small gem in the literature of the Sixties, a lament from one of the decade’s losers: someone who wasn’t hip, beautiful, daring, or liberal. “Being ‘with it’ wasn’t easy for someone of my background,” Wilkinson confesses. “But Lord, how I tried.” We witness the anxiety of a southerner in northern-elite company during a time of racial upheaval, a square struggling, like Dylan’s Mr. Jones in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” to comprehend the unsettling change unfolding all around him.

“It was not a good thing to be shy and slight of build at boarding school,” the author writes of his time in Lawrenceville, N.J., in the early Sixties, adding that he was “clumsy at small talk.” At Yale, where Wilkinson graduated just ahead of Garry Trudeau and George W. Bush, this Otherness persisted: “From my first day on campus, I felt I traveled in a different country and listened to a different tongue.”

The falling faith making the loudest thud! in these pages is Wilkinson’s: that he would ever find acceptance or communion in the age when Madison Avenue discovered insouciant brashness and unbridled sensuality. Unmentioned in his account of the Sixties: the Beatles! For the future judge, graduation day at Yale in the spring of 1967 — the era, for the rest of college-age youth, of Sgt. Pepper — was the time when “the songs had ceased.”

What? For most of Wilkinson’s generation, and even to succeeding generations who absorbed the decade retroactively through PBS documentaries and classic-rock stations, the Sixties marked the time when the songs kicked in! And what a torrent of exquisite sounds the decade unleashed. The only lyrics quoted here, though, are from the Whiffenpoofs.

Wilkinson’s tone deafness to the irresistible popular music of his time, and his painful accounts of his awkwardness as a young man, oblige us to consider — though causation is never simple — that he was driven to publish this book, which “began as jottings more than fifty years ago,” as a way of absolving himself for his inability to catch the era’s groovy vibe. “Everybody had a good time / Everybody had a wet dream,” John Lennon sang on Let It Be (1970), the Beatles’ swan-song album. And if all that passed you by — Lord, how I tried — well, the decade must have been bad for America.

Still, Wilkinson can write with surpassing tenderness. Consider his remembrance of Berta, the African-American housekeeper who helped raise him, and for whom, in the otherwise inhospitable environment that surrounded her, he felt a child’s utterly innocent love:

To my horror, I would not escape the system forever. One day, Berta and I got crosswise over nothing, and I stared at her and screamed, until those eyes welled with tears, and I saw how deeply a black woman could feel pain. I cried all night in my room, feeling the loss of my dear friend forever, knowing that I’d turned as mean as the meanest white man that Berta ever knew. I thought all night what I might say to Berta, but there seemed nothing to say, because words couldn’t take back words. Now Berta knew. I thought I’d get a knife and cut myself; only blood would show Berta how sorry I was.

“I’m not like that, Berta,” I said, finally, the next day.

If All Falling Faiths doesn’t quite succeed fully as memoir or sociology, it is still a measured and important book, engrossing and instructive in helping younger readers understand some of what they missed. Perhaps students of Wilkinson’s jurisprudence will find clues herein to his approach to statutory interpretation; the rest of us are left with the saddening portrait of a man still haunted by events of a half century ago, who can write: “So there I was, trapped between past and present.”

– Mr. Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent of Fox News and the editor of A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century, a collection of eulogies by the late William F. Buckley Jr.

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